The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Reading Between the Lines: Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts

Camden, NJ

Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts held professional development workshops for teachers as part of their Big Read. Photo courtesy of Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts

When the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA) held its first Big Read in 2010, Noreen Scott Garrity, RCCA?s associate director and curator of education asserted, ?Camden?s The Big Read will be a true community initiative.? This focus on involving all members of the community has carried over into RCCA?s second Big Read, particularly their activities that center around Zora Neale Hurston?s Their Eyes Were Watching God. With multiple book discussion opportunities, companion books for younger grade levels, and the distribution of 1,250 copies of Hurston?s novel, RCCA is reaching out to its community in a variety of ways. We spoke with Noreen Scott Garrity to learn more.

NEA: Can you describe your efforts to involve different parts of your community in The Big Read?

NOREEN SCOTT GARRITY: Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts has engaged the general local and regional public through various events, including an exhibition in the Stedman Gallery entitled ARTiculate: Links Between Visual and Verbal Expression (featuring a work by artist Glenn Ligon that is based on a Zora Neale Hurston essay), a literary tea kickoff, several public lectures, and more.

Camden High School teachers participated in a professional development workshop and every high school junior in Camden City is reading the book Their Eyes Were Watching God. Since we at RCCA have such an active arts education program for pre-K through twelfth grade, companion books were selected for younger grade levels. Roy Makes a Car by Mary E. Lyons and illustrated by Terry Widener is based on a folktale collected by Hurston and is being shared with children who are in pre-school through fourth grade. Sorrow?s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston by Mary E. Lyons is being read by grades seven through ten. Multiple education programs related to all three books have been developed to serve students of all grade levels. In the Camden community, book discussion groups have been formed by working with a number of local community groups, including senior citizen centers, parent groups at local schools, social service agencies, and more.

NEA: Why did you choose to read Their Eyes Were Watching God?

GARRITY: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was selected for the following reasons:
1) solid consensus among university (particularly African-American Studies, Children and Childhood Studies, and English departments), library, and school partners;
2) it is required reading for high schools in Camden City;
3) Hurston believed that African-American culture is valuable and worthy of preservation---this book effectively relays that powerful message to Camden's population of 44,000 African-American residents, and those of other cultures; and
4) the book's themes dovetail with RCCA programming areas, specifically the Stedman Gallery's exhibition series, public performance series, and arts education programs---Stages of Discovery performance series, Museum Education program in the Stedman Gallery, and the D'ARTS program (electronic field trips).

NEA: What Big Read event are you most looking forward to?

GARRITY: We have already held several events that we had been looking forward to and enjoyed immensely, such as a full-day professional development workshop for 40 high school English and social studies teachers that was held before the books were distributed to every high school junior in Camden City. The Literary Tea kickoff event was a real highlight, with live music by Arpeggio Jazz Group and a lively introduction to the book by Dr. Keith Green, a Rutgers-Camden English professor. We are still looking forward to more events, including a traveling film festival to several local community centers, a Literature to Life performance of Zora for 600 middle and high school students, an artist-in-residence program at a Camden high school, and more.

NEA: What benefit do you hope The Big Read will have on your community?

GARRITY: Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts is committed to The Big Read?s purpose of encouraging the reading of literature for pleasure and enlightenment. RCCA and its partner organizations have the additional objectives of increasing youth and adult literacy skills and enhancing community cohesiveness through Big Read activities. Our Big Read Initiative 2011 focuses on expanding the number of groups already identified in the Big Read 2010 initiative. In its second year, Camden?s Big Read is already a much anticipated event.

Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts? Big Read activities continue through the end of March. Visit their website for more details. To learn more about Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God, visit The Big Read website.

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